This year I decided to try and mix things up a bit and hunt with a bow in the unit that has haunted me the most. No other unit has dished out as much frustration to me as this one has. Am I crazy for making it more difficult on my self by hunting with a bow? Maybe, but I didn't view it in such a way. I saw it as an opportunity to try something different and I needed to try some thing different after eating this tag for 3 years in a row. You may remember me talking about this unit in my HAC last year when I had a rifle tag in this unit. I had some close opportunities, the closest I've ever had hunting in this unit, but last year was another win for the elk and another un-notched elk tag.
This year was going to be different. I was sure of it. I went into this hunt with just the goal of getting up close into some elk rut action. That's all I really wanted from this hunt and that's exactly what I got! It took us a few days to finally get into he elk. The first evening of the hunt we decided to hunt off a water hole. It was a quite and frustrating evening. A couple guys decided to cut firewood close by and were being very loud. That first evening was a bust!
The next day I couldn't hunt in the morning due to class but that evening I was able to get out for a few hrs and try another water hole. This water hole was very hard to access and is somewhat of an elk hot spot with the amount elk sign and a lack of people. After the long drive just to get to this area, we only had 2 hours to hunt. We made our way to the tank and it was exactly what I was expecting. The soft soil around the water looked like a barnyard. Tons of elk tracks and rubs. I thought for sure that we were going to get into some action that evening. We decided to hunt off some of the trails that led into this waterhole and it was dead. The elk were not vocal and it just seemed that the elk were not there. I left the area scratching my head because after all the country I covered with my glass, there were no elk to be seen.
Earlier in the summer my boss/great friend found a big shed in the unit so I went back to see if I could find the other side. Long story short I did not match up the shed but when I was looking for the other side I saw lots of elk. I saw over 50 elk in 3 herds that consisted of cows and spike bulls. Nothing really special, but I knew that these elk were residential. I though that with that amount of cows in that area it was only a matter of time (2 months) before the bulls were going to be with them.
That next morning we headed to this new area with high hopes of getting into some action. We arrived with 15 minutes to spare so we started to get our stuff ready in the dark and that is when we herd the first bugle of the hunt. I couldn't get my stuff ready quick enough. We started hiking up the mountain in the direction of the bugles. We decided to not call at him and just get as close as we could to the bull and set up and call him in. Half an hour of playing catch up we finally get close enough to call. The only problem was we chased him into the thickest country you could imagine. I tried to find the most open area to set up in and my dad and little brother set up 40-50 yards behind me. This bull was super hot and was bugling at everything we threw at him. We called him in to under 40 yards but it was so thick I couldn't even see him. In fact I think he wanted to come in but the terrain wouldn't allow him to. I couldn't sneak up and slip an arrow in because the terrain was too thick. We called in one of his cows to 25 of me and although cows are fair game with any archery tag in NM, I decided not to shoot and try for the bull. He stayed there under 40 yards raking a tree and bugling his head off until one of his cows took him back. That was the last we saw of that bull.
Already my hunt was a success but it wasn't enough to keep me satisfied. Getting that close to a bull and not being able to even see him was haunting me. I kept replaying all the different scenarios in my head but there was nothing that I could have done differently. Just one those situations where the luck was on their side. As badly as I wanted to get back on that mountain and hunt him again, I couldn't. My class schedule limited my time and I couldn't make another trip that far. I was stuck to hunting the closer part of the unit to home. The one area of this unit that I dread the most. I hadn't heard a bugle or even seen an elk in this part of the unit in years.
It was the second to the last day of the archery season in New Mexico and the rut should be near full swing. We felt that if there were any bulls in the area that they would definitely be bugling. The night before we got a late start to the hunt so instead of hunting we just decided to try and locate a bull for the next morning. We went to an area that has known to have a lot of elk sign but out of all my years of hunting this unit, I have never seen or heard a bull in that area. We stay unit after dark and throw out some locater bugles to see if we can get anything to answer. After a night full of driving around and trying to get bulls to answer us, we get 2 bulls to respond. They were about 5 miles apart from each other and we decided to hunt the furthest bull because he was more responsive to our calls and he sounded like he was alone.
The next morning we found him right where we left him. He sounded like a young bull from his bugle. Just a real short bugle like what a rag horn bull would sound like. We started out again chasing bugles in the dark and since this bull was really responsive, we thought that he would come in to our calls. We got on top of this small hill and started glassing for him. He last bugled close enough to where we should be able to put our eyes on him. It was still somewhat dark but enough light to make out elk in the bodies of elk. I could see a bull at the edge of a tree line that was walking our way. He stopped about 100 yards from the tree line and began to thrash the ground with his antlers. He let out another bugle and it matched the bugle from the night before. It was the same bull except now I could see a bit better and he was a lot bigger than his bugle portrayed him to be.
He was a solid 6x7 with a dinky bugle. I could see more elk slowly feeding out of the timber. He had cows! He was a herd bull. We usually hunt herd bulls by just sneaking up as close as possible and bugling like an intruder bull coming to take the herd. We couldn't do that with this bull because there was a valley that was 800 yards long with no cover to sneak in close. All we could do was stay put and hopefully call him off his cows. The bull just went back and forth through his herd of cows and bugled at every call we threw at him. We knew he wasn't going to come in on his own. I told my dad about an idea that I wanted to try out. I told him "Lets both just throw a bunch of cow calls at him at the same time and see what happens". We give him an intense round of estrus cow calls and the whole herd stopped feeding and looked our direction. Sure enough here they all come with the bull bringing up the rear.
I got ready and set up off this fence line that they seemed to be following. The bull just went crazy and wouldn't stop bugling. The whole herd came in to under a hundred yards and for some reason they didn't commit. The cows slowly go back to feeding and take the bull back into the timber. He sure looked big as he was bugling away from us as he entered the tree line. We let all the cows disappear into the trees before we followed them in. The bull stopped bugling and we had no idea where they were. We throw some cow calls and the bull half bugled at us. I start to set up when my dad spots the bull less than 80 yards away. He came in quick and caught us off guard and unprepared. Without moving for a solid minute the stare down with this bull ended and he slowly started to feed away. I went in after him and could only see bits and parts of him through the timer.
I lost sight of the bull because I had to get around this big cedar tree and when I looked to he was last standing he was gone. I know he didn't spook because I didn't hear any crashing through the timber so I kept going in the same direction. We finally catch a glimpse of him and although I cant see him, I know he looking right at me from the direction his antlers were facing. He's under 50 yards and I have no shot because he's right being this big pinon tree. The bull bolts and runs into an opening and comes to a complete stop. He looks at me broadside 116 yards away and takes off for good disappearing into the timber.
What a heartbreaking morning of elk hunting. Another close encounter with these ghost bulls of the lowcountry. This unit has gotten the best of me 4 years in a row. This was the closest I have gotten to killing a bull out of this unit and almost killed my biggest bull to date. That 6x7 will haunt me for a while. Although this hunt resulted I another un-notched tag, it was successful because just getting into that much elk action in the hardest unit in Northern NM was a success in itself.